Saul (Handel)

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Saul (HWV 53) is a dramatic oratorio in three acts written by George Frideric Handel with a libretto by Charles Jennens. Taken from the First Book of Samuel, the story of Saul focuses on the first king of Israel's relationship with his eventual successor, David; one which turns from admiration to envy and hatred, ultimately leading to the downfall of the eponymous monarch. The work, which Handel composed in 1738, includes the famous "Dead March", a funeral anthem for Saul and his son Jonathan, and some of the composer's most dramatic choral pieces. Saul was first performed at the King's Theatre in London on 16 January 1739. The work was a success at its London premiere and was revived by Handel in subsequent seasons.


18th-century painting of the King's Theatre, London, and adjacent buildings
London King's Theatre Haymarket, where Saul was first performed

The German-born Handel had been resident in London since 1712 and had there enjoyed great success as a composer of Italian operas. His opportunities to set English texts to music had been more limited; he had spent the years 1717 to 1719 as composer in residence to the wealthy Duke of Chandos where he had written church anthems and two stage works, Acis and Galatea and Esther; and had composed vocal music to English words for various royal occasions, including a set of Coronation anthems for George II in 1727, which had made a huge impact.[1] In 1731, a performance of the 1718 version of Esther, a work in English based on a Biblical drama by Jean Racine, was given in London without Handel's participation and had proved popular, so Handel revised the work and planned to present it at the theatre where his Italian operas were being presented. However the Bishop of London would not permit a drama based on a Biblical story to be acted out on the stage, and therefore Handel presented Esther in concert form, thus giving birth to the English oratorio.[2]:212

Esther in its revised form proved a popular work, and Handel, though still continuing to focus on composition of Italian operas, followed Esther with two more sacred dramas with English words to be presented in concert form, Deborah, and Athalia (which, like Esther, was also based on a Biblical drama by Racine), both in 1733.

Composition and instrumentation[edit]

By 1738, Handel was experiencing some difficulty in maintaining support for his Italian opera seasons in London and he collaborated for the first time with Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner and lover of the arts, who also provided the texts for Messiah and other oratorios of Handel. Jennens wrote Saul, an original English text based on Biblical characters, especially designed to provide opportunities for the sort of music Handel composed.[2]:23

Opera seria, the form of Italian opera that Handel composed for London, focused overwhelmingly on solo arias and recitatives for the star singers and contained very little else; they did not feature separate choruses. With the English oratorios Handel had the opportunity to mix operatic arias in English for the soloists with large choruses of the type that he used in the Coronation anthems. Jennens provided a text with well-rounded characters and dramatic effects.[2]:23 The collaboration with Jennens was not without tension; Jennens referred in a letter to the "maggots" in Handel's head and complained that Handel wanted to end the work with a chorus of "Hallelujahs" that the librettist did not feel was appropriate as at the end of the piece Israel has been defeated in battle and the King and Crown Prince both killed, whereas the Hallelujahs would be suited to the celebrations at the opening of the work when David has killed Goliath.[2] Jennens got his way; in the completed version Saul does not end with a chorus of "Hallelujahs" but there is such a chorus where Jennens had wanted one.[3]

Handel composed the music of Saul between July and September 1738.[4] He conceived Saul on the grandest scale and included a large orchestra with many instrumental effects which were unusual for the time including a carillon (a keyboard instrument which makes a sound like chiming bells); a specially constructed organ for himself to play during the course of the work; trombones, not standard orchestral instruments at that time, giving the work a heavy brass component; large kettledrums specially borrowed from the Tower of London; extra woodwinds for the Witch of Endor scene; and a harp solo.[2]:318–319

In the same letter in which Jennens complained that Handel wanted a chorus of "Hallelujahs" at a point of the drama the writer felt was inappropriate, he wrote of a meeting he had with Handel to discuss the work and the composer's delight in some of the unusual instruments he planned to use:

Mr. Handel's head is more full of Maggots than ever: I found yesterday in His room a very queer Instrument which He calls Carillon (Anglice a Bell) & says some call it a Tubal-cain, I suppose because it is in the make and tone like a Hammer striking upon Anvils. 'Tis played upon with Keys like a Harpsichord, & with this Cyclopean Instrument he designs to make poor Saul stark mad. His second Maggot is an Organ of 500£ price, which (because he is overstock'd with Money) he has bespoke of one Moss of Barnet; this Organ, he says, is so contriv'd that as he sits at it he has a better command of his Performers than he us'd to have; & he is highly delighted to think with what exactness his Oratorio will be perform'd by the help of this Organ; so that for the future, instead of beating time at his Oratorio's, he is to sit as his Organ all the time with his back to the Audience ... I could tell you more of his Maggots: but it grows late, and I must defer the rest till I write next; by which time, I doubt not, more new ones will breed in his Brain.[2]:266

Also of note in that letter is the fact that although Handel's London seasons of Italian opera had not been drawing the audiences they had in former years, Jennens makes an incidental remark that the composer was very wealthy ("overstock'd with money").[2]:267

On 5 December 1738 Lady Katherine Knatchbull, a friend and patron of Handel's, wrote to her brother-in-law James Harris, who was a writer on music and other subjects, and also a friend of the composer, "(Handel) desired me to give his tres humble respects; and that you must come up in January, for he opens with The Loves of Saul and Jonathan, then follows another on the ten plagues of Egypt (to me an odd subject) ... He has had an instrument made after the manner of Tubal-cain's, the inventor of music." (referring to the specially-built carillon. Going on to an attempt to describe a trombone, an instrument she had obviously never seen, she writes:) "He has also introduced the sackbut, a kind of trumpet,with more variety of notes,& it is 7 or 8-foot long,& draws in like a perspective glass, so may be shortened to 3-foot as the player chuses, or thrown out to its full length; despise not this description for I write from his own words."[5]

In the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, specialist in the history of musical instruments Anthony Baines wrote that Saul contains the finest music for trombones composed in the 18th century.[6]

Reception and performance history[edit]

A report in the London press remarked on the favourable reception given to the work at its first performance,[7] with members of the royal family in attendance.[2]:269 The architect William Kent wrote to Lord Burlington after the first performance,referring to the passage with the carillon, "There is a pretty concerto in the oratorio, there is some stops in the Harpsicord that are little bells, I had thought it had been some squerrls in a cage.[2]:270 Saul was given six performances in its first season, a mark of success at that time,[7] and was one of the works Handel most frequently revived in his subsequent seasons, being given in London in 1740, 1741,1744,1745 and 1750.[8] Saul received a performance in Dublin under Handel's direction "by special request" in 1742.[8]

Already in Handel's own lifetime, choral societies were formed in the English provinces with the aim of performing works of Handel and others[9] and Saul was performed with a fair degree of regularity by choral societies in London and elsewhere in Britain through the 19th century.[10] Handel's major oratorios including Saul have been frequently performed, broadcast and recorded since the second half of the twentieth century.[11]

The excellence of the libretto and the power of Handel's musical characterisation combine to make Saul, in the words of Handel scholar Winton Dean,"one of the supreme masterpieces of dramatic art, comparable with the Oresteia and King Lear".[1]

Dramatis personae[edit]

Contemporary engraving of a member of the original cast
Élisabeth Duparc, creator of the role of Michal
Role Voice 1739 cast
Saul, King of Israel bass Gustavus Waltz
Merab soprano Cecilia Young
Michal soprano Élisabeth Duparc
Jonathan tenor John Beard
David tenor in the 1739 cast, soprano castrato or contralto at subsequent revivals under Handel's direction[8] Mr Russell
Ghost of Samuel bass Mr Hussey
High Priest countertenor Mr Kelly
Witch of Endor uncertain; contralto or tenor Maria Antonia Marchesini
Abner tenor Gaetano Majorano
Amalekite tenor Mr Stoppelaer
Doeg bass Mr Butler
Chorus of Israelites


Painting showing David displaying the severed head of Goliath on a pole and the people celebrating
The Triumph of David by Nicolas Poussin

The libretto is freely adapted from the First Book of Samuel, Chapters 16 – 31, with additional material from the epic poem, the Davideis by Abraham Cowley. The printed libretto of Saul from 1738 credits the Davideis as the source of the contemptuous treatment of David by Princess Merab.[12]

Act 1[edit]

Engraving showing the King throwing his javelin at David
Saul Tries to Kill David by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

The Israelites raise their voices in magnificent thanksgiving to God, for the young warrior David has slain the Philistine giant Goliath. At the court of King Saul, once a mighty warrior himself, all the people celebrate the hero David. Saul's son, Jonathan swears eternal devotion to David, but Saul's two daughters experience contrasting emotions – Michal is in love with David, but Merab feels contempt for him as a social inferior, a feeling that only increases when Saul offers her in marriage to David. A group of Israelite young women offer further tributes to the saviour of the country, David, which arouses King Saul to terrible jealousy. Unable to restrain himself, he hurls his javelin at David, who manages to escape, but Saul orders his son Jonathan to destroy him.

Act 2[edit]

 Dramatic painting of a hooded figure raising a ghost as the bearded King clutches his brow
The Witch of Endor (Martynov)

The people of Israel reflect on the destructive power of envy. Jonathan informs David that his father has ordered him to kill him, but he will never consent to harm David. He tells David that Saul has given his daughter Merab to another man, but David is not sorry to hear it as he is in love with Michal. Jonathan pleads with his father to relent in his enmity to David, and the King seemingly accepts this advice, gives David his daughter Michal in marriage, and makes David head of the Israelite army – but he is secretly hoping that David will be killed in battle. When, instead, David is victorious, Saul attempts unsuccessfully to kill him again. Saul sends a messenger, Doeg, to arrest David at his home, but David escapes out a window. At the festival of the New Moon, the King questions Jonathan as to David's absence, and when Jonathan defends his friend, the King once again becomes infuriated and attempts to murder his own son.

Act 3[edit]

In despair, and realising that he is breaking his own laws and committing sacrilege, King Saul consults a medium, the Witch of Endor, to raise the ghost of Samuel the prophet in order to give him counsel. The ghost of Samuel has no comforting words for the King, telling him that both Saul and Jonathan will shortly be killed in battle with the Philistines, as God's punishment for Saul's disobedience in sparing the king of the Amalekites, defeated in a previous battle, whom Samuel had ordered Saul to kill. After the battle, David hears that Jonathan and the King have both met death, Saul at the hand of the Amalekite king himself. David orders the Amalekite to be executed. The people of Israel mourn their defeat by the Philistines, their slain King and his son, David feeling deeply the loss of Jonathan. "Great was the pleasure I enjoy'd in thee, And more than woman's love thy wondrous love to me!" The Israelites tell David that he must recover from the loss of his dear friend, lead them into battle once again, and repair the defeat of their country.[1]

The "Dead March"[edit]

The "Dead March" played in Act Three, introducing the obsequies for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, is in the key of C major. It includes an organ part and trombones alternating with flutes, oboes and quiet timpani.[2] The "Dead March" in Saul has been played at state funerals in the United Kingdom,[13] including that of Winston Churchill.[14] It was performed at the funeral of George Washington, as well as being played many times during the journey of the body of Abraham Lincoln after his assassination to Springfield, Illinois.[15][16] On 29 March 2015, the seventh day of the Death of Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore Armed Forces Band performed the "Dead March" during the foot procession of the State Funeral of Lee Kuan Yew after his body was Lying in State in the Parliament House of Singapore from 25 March 2015 to 28 March 2015. [17]

List of arias and musical numbers[edit]

(Note: "Symphony" in this context means a purely instrumental piece. "Accompagnato" is a recitative accompanied by the orchestra, rather than by continuo instruments only, as in the passages marked "recitative.").

Musical features[edit]

'Saul' is composed for soloists and chorus, two flutes, two oboes, two trumpets, three trombones,kettledrums, organ,harp, continuo instruments, and strings.[12] The work begins and ends in C major, a key choice which may have been influenced by the presence of trombones in the orchestra. Handel's other work of the same season to use trombones, Israel in Egypt, also favours C major for the choruses with trombones in their accompaniment.[2]:320

The first piece of music is an overture in the Italian style in three movements, the first quick and fugal, then a slow movement, followed by another quick section with the addition of a concerto-like passage for organ,[12] which Handel played himself at the original performances as he directed the musicians.[2]:266 The overture is followed by a slower dance-like piece for orchestra,marked andante larghetto.[12]

Act One[edit]

The act begins with the chorus of celebration after David has slain Goliath. Trumpets and trombones, which were not present in the overture, are now added. The chorus of rejoicing is developed briefly in counterpoint.[12] A slower air for soprano in a minor key praising David's achievement is followed by a chorus for alto, tenor and bass marked, unusually, Ardito (boldly), and then a longer chorus with developed counterpoint is heard. The chorus which opened the act is repeated, followed by a jubilant chorus of "Hallelujah", to end the opening "Epinicion or Song of Triumph".[12] The expansive scale of the multi-part overture, and the glitter and celebratory quality of the Epinicion are indications, according to Jonathan Keates, of the ambition of the work as a whole and its monumental achievement.[19]

Other of the most notable musical features of Act One include the chorus and dance movement including the carillon with a chorus of praise for David, which rouse King Saul to terrible jealousy. David's attempt to soothe the King is conveyed in an aria of "simple purity",[19]"O Lord, whose mercies numberless", followed by harp solo. David's efforts are in vain, and the King's jealousy breaks out into an aria of fury "A serpent, in my bosom warm'd", which suddenly and unexpectedly breaks off as the King hurls his javelin at David, depicted in the music by descending octaves in the strings.[19] A chorus in the key of G minor, developed contrapuntally, ends the act as the chorus pray that God will protect David.[12]

Act Two[edit]

The second act begins as the chorus comment on the drama after the manner of the chorus in Greek tragedy, in "Envy, eldest born of hell" which according to musicologist Paul Henry Lang is "as mighty a piece as Handel ever composed".[20] Dotted rhythms over a relentlessly repeated ostinato bass depict the obsessive jealousy of the King as the chorus warn him "Hide thee in the black night".[12]

Two purely instrumental passages ("symphonies") feature in Act Two. The first, depicting the celebrations for the wedding of David and Michal, is in three parts, a slow and solemn introduction with trombones prominent, the second section a brisk organ concerto, concluding with a slower movement in the form of a gavotte.[12][20] The second instrumental passage in the act is a shorter festive piece with trumpets and drums, trombones, woodwinds and strings, depicting the holiday of the New Moon.[12]

A chorus in the key of D major, with a chromatic fugal section at the end, concludes the act as the chorus denounce the King as a monster for the attempted murders of both Jonathan and David.[12]

Act Three[edit]

Act three opens with a powerful and dramatic[20] accompanied recitative for King Saul as he seeks advice from the Witch of Endor. The Witch invokes the ghost of Samuel in a passage which conjures up a supernatural atmosphere by the use of an irregular bass line with prominent oboes and bassoons.[2]:319[19] Bassoons also introduce the Ghost of Samuel as the apparition prophesies doom for the King.[2]:319 A martial "Battle symphony" with trumpets and drums ensues,[12] followed shortly by the famous Dead March. Chorus and soloists mourn the deaths of the King and his son, and the work concludes with a chorus in the key of C major urging David to lead his country into battle against its enemies.[12]

Selected recordings[edit]

Year Cast:Saul,
Ghost of Samuel,
Witch of Endor
and chorus
1973 Donald McIntyre,
Margaret Price,
Sheila Armstrong,
Ryland Davies,
James Bowman,
Stafford Dean
John Winfield
Charles Mackerras,
English Chamber Orchestra,
Leeds Festival Chorus
CD:Archiv 0289 447 6962 3 ADD AX3
1985 Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
Julia Varady,
Elizabeth Gale,
Anthony Rolfe-Johnson,
Paul Esswood
Matthias Hölle,
Helmut Wildhaber
Nikolaus Harnoncourt,
Concentus Musicus Wien,
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
CD:Das Alte Werk 2564 686983
1989 Alistair Miles,
Donna Brown,
Lynne Dawson,
John Mark Ainsley,
Derek Lee Ragin,
Richard Savage,
Phillip Salmon
John Eliot Gardiner,
English Baroque Soloists,
Monteverdi Choir
CD:Phillips 000942802
1997 Gregory Reinhart,
Simone Kermes,
Vasilijka Jezovsek,
John Elwes,
Matthias Koch,
Michail Schelomjanskis,
Johannes Kalpers
Peter Neumann,
Collegium Cartusianum,
Kölner Kammerchor
CD:MDG 332 0801-2
2004 Neal Davies,
Nancy Argenta,
Susan Gritton,
Mark Padmore,
Andreas Scholl,
Paul Agnew,
Angus Smith
Paul McCreesh,
Gabrieli Players,
Gabrieli Consort
Archiv 0289 474 5102
2012 Christopher Purves,
Elizabeth Atherton,
Joélle Harvey,
Robert Murray,
Sarah Connolly,
Stuart Young,
Jeremy Budd
Harry Christophers,
The Sixteen
The Sixteen Chorus
CD:Coro COR16103


  1. ^ a b c Kemp, Lindsay. "Programme Notes for Saul" (PDF). BBC. Retrieved 28 September 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Burrows, Donald (2012). Handel (Master Musicians Series). Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition. ISBN 978-0-19-973736-9. 
  3. ^ Smith, Ruth (2005). Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought. Cambridge University Press. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-521-02370-2. 
  4. ^ Blakeman, Edward (2009). The Faber Pocket Guide to Handel. Faber & Faber. p. 192. ISBN 978-0-571-23831-6. 
  5. ^ Burrows, Donald (2002). Music and Theatre in Handel's World: The Family Papers of James Harris 1732–1780. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-19-816654-2. 
  6. ^ Guion, David (1988). Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697–1811. Routledge. p. 206. ISBN 978-2-88124-211-3. 
  7. ^ a b Smither, Howard E. (1977). A History of the Oratorio: Vol. 2: the Oratorio in the Baroque Era: Protestant Germany and England. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 215. ISBN 978-0-8078-1294-5. 
  8. ^ a b c "G. F. Handel's Compositions". The Handel Institute. Retrieved 28 September 2013. 
  9. ^ Newman, Gerald (1997). Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714–1837: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 473. ISBN 978-0-8153-0396-1. 
  10. ^ Landgraf, Annette, ed. (2009). The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia. Cambridge University Press. p. 521. ISBN 978-0-521-88192-0. 
  11. ^ Burrows, Donald, ed. (1998). The Cambridge Companion to Handel. Cambridge University Press. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-521-45613-5. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Martini, Joachim Carlos. "Programme Notes for "Saul"". Naxos,com. Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  13. ^ Kennedy, Michael (1995). The Oxford Dictionary of Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-869162-4. 
  14. ^ Chandler, David, ed. (2003). The Oxford History of the British Army. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 345. ISBN 978-0-19-280311-5. 
  15. ^ Edward G., Lengel (2012). A Companion to George Washington. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4443-3103-5. 
  16. ^ Roden, Timothy J. (2009). Anthology for Music in Western Civilization, Volume II. Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-0-495-57275-6. 
  17. ^ "Funeral service to involve people who reflect Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy". TODAYonline. 
  18. ^ "Libretto of "Saul"". Stanford University. Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  19. ^ a b c d Keates, Jonathan (1985). Handel: The Man & His Music. Random House UK. p. 257. ISBN 978-1-84595-115-3. 
  20. ^ a b c Lang, Paul Henry (2011). George Frideric Handel (reprint ed.). Dover Books on Music. pp. 305–6. ISBN 978-0-486-29227-4. 
  21. ^ "Complete List of Recordings of Handel's "Saul"". Presto Classical. Retrieved 14 November 2013. 

External links[edit]